I should start by saying that, most of the time, in fact I’m a big planner: I like to plan things in advance and know what I need to do, what events are coming up, and feel assured that nothing will be forgotten.
Normally, for me, planning includes the following:
- Making to-do lists, both daily and long-term
- Setting deadlines for projects
- Writing out a weekly menu and planning food shopping in advance
- Scheduling social engagements
- Protecting certain free times each week/month for rest and spontaneity
However, I went through a long period recently when somehow my planning instincts seemed to fail me. I got very precious about my time and didn’t like to see it portioned off weeks in advance, felt overwhelmed by to-do lists, and felt too panicky to sit down and plan my projects because it felt like wasting precious time. Although I was incredibly stressed, and knew that planning was a good way of preventing stress, I seemed unable to put that into action. I began wondering if all the feelings I was experiencing were the kinds of things that made other people – the non-planning sort – avoid planning ahead, too. I don’t know if that’s the case, but looking back I can now identify several specific perspectives that prevented me from planning.Here are the main reasons I sometimes avoid planning:
Very often, in my fear-of-planning phase, I would sit down in the morning at my desk or arrive home in the evening with a feeling of panic. I knew I had a lot to do, limited time, and possibly already felt too tired to do any of it. However, the only way to alleviate the panic seemed to be to do something, anything. Writing out a plan or a list seemed like a waste of time that could be spent beginning some necessary task.
Fear of failure
As soon as you write something down on a list, it becomes a standard by which to measure success; it also becomes a standard that can condemn you to failure if you don’t accomplish everything. Many times, I couldn’t bear to write a to-do list because I knew I couldn’t accomplish everything that would go on it. It felt like a sentence of failure from the outset; it was a ‘won’t be able to do’ list! I found that, if I already approached the day or the week feeling behind, having a list that proved I was even more behind was like a threat. I preferred to beaver away at what tasks I could, trying to forget the others that I wasn’t achieving, hoping that by not writing them down I could avoid the constant feeling of inadequacy I normally felt. Having to-do lists only made it worse, because I transferred the items on my list from one list to the next, day after day, and they would persist forever undone.
Desire for escape from structure
Sometimes, I avoided planning in advance because I felt crushed by having too much to do, and became especially protective of my time because I felt it was being sucked away from me. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that, although I’m generally a planning person, I do need some pockets of spontaneity as a period of rest from all the structure. Normally, I would make sure there were some times in the week when I was free from scheduled activities. However, if stress and an over-full schedule predominate, I’ll become unreasonably protective of all my time, and resist planning even fun activities in advance because I feel so needy for free time that taking a free evening and filling it with a schedule – even just for dinner with a friend – seems very scary. It’s like surrendering the only free time I might be likely to get.
It was really only in the new year that I started planning my daily activities in the way I used to. I had to step away from the stress for a while to see where I’d gone wrong. And I do think I had gone wrong: though I’m probably a person who could stand to loosen up in some regards, I can definitely say that my resistance to planning did not make me feel happy, or organic, or chilled out, or pleasantly spontaneous. It just made my life feel out of control and left me with a constant, low-lying panic. Even if I have room for growth in my willingness to ‘go with the flow’, I know that I need some structure and planning to feel sane.
I’ve found a few ways that have made planning work better lately.
For one thing, I don’t listen to the panic. I do actually still feel it sometimes, when I have the vague sense of too much to do, an impending deadline, etc. However, at those times, I force myself to sit down and make a plan for the day or the week before I start doing anything. I’ve learned that, if I act on the panic and jump into a task immediately without evaluating the bigger plan, in fact the panic just persists. Whereas, if I stop and devote just five or ten minutes to writing out a detailed list (even assigning time slots to tasks if necessary), I feel calmer and the panic generally dissipates.
Another thing I’ve done is try to be realistic and make sure that I’m not setting myself up for failure. If my to-do list is looking very long and impossible to complete, I star the most important items and tackle them first. Then, at the end of the day, I consider myself successful if I accomplish the starred tasks, even if some others remain undone. Differentiating between ‘must get done today’ tasks and ‘it would be nice if I did it this week’ tasks means that some tasks can be left incomplete without producing such an acute feeling of inadequacy.
Finally, I’m only just re-learning the value of what I used to call planned spontaneity. This is time which is jealously protected for the sole purpose of doing exactly what I feel like doing, at that time. The at that time is important: it’s easy to have ideas, in advance, of activities I’d like to do and to mentally push them into my spontaneous time because it’s free time. However, when the ‘spontaneous’ time arrives, if I just don’t feel like doing that activity – even a fun one – I don’t force myself to. I’ve learned that it isn’t the funness or un-funness of the activity that makes it feel restful or unrestful. Rather, it’s whether I allowed the time of spontaneity to answer precisely the needs of that moment, not the plans of a day earlier. It’s the spontaneousness, not the activity, that’s restful. I know this kind of spontaneous time isn’t always easy to find, but I’m learning it’s crucial to my perception of rest, and realising that I need to schedule some into my calendar. As much as structure is helpful, it can feel suffocating if there’s never a break from it.
So, as I’m getting back into better planning, I’m actually enjoying it a lot. I’ve even started planning a few things I never used to but which cut down on a lot of last-minute frustration:
- Writing big events into my diary well in advance (weddings, parties, holidays) and then, at the same time, back-tracking to assign days or weeks for the necessary preparation: buying a card, shopping, cooking. That way everything mentally wrapped up with ‘the event’ is all written down and won’t be forgotten or left till too late.
- Checking meal plans ahead of time to ensure that everything is defrosted on time. This is a big deal because we don’t have a microwave! I’ve spent too many hours of my life attempting to cook or speed-thaw frozen meals because of a lack of thinking ahead. Now I’m really enjoying having food that is properly defrosted by the time it’s needed!
- Assigning days to reserve books at the library in advance of my weekly trips. This is so simple and obvious, but it’s easy to let those small deadlines roll around in my head instead of just planning them and getting them out of my mind.
None of this makes me super-human in my ability to get things done, and I’m not actually sure I accomplish more, necessarily, than if I didn’t plan ahead. But I do generally feel that, because my diary is really up-to-date and complete, a glance at it will tell me the whole truth about what’s coming up on a given day; I know I can trust it. Even if I don’t accomplish everything possible, whatever I do manage to do causes me much less stress than it used to in my aversion-from-planning phase.